on 6 September 2015
Far be it for me to disagree with such Amazonian heavyweights as Stewart Crowe and Ralph Moore, but my own listening experience with this set differed so markedly from their own, that I felt it was my duty to share it with you all, even if in doing so I do risk sounding somewhat humbug with this most Christmassy of operas !
For indeed this set does strive to enter the magical childlike world of Humperdinck's "children's opera", using real children to play the parts of the children in the opera. I have to say that as such, they sing accurately, taking the parts of Hansel and Gretel, as well as the Dew Fairy and Sandman; however, that's about as good as it gets. The two principals just about have pleasant voices and there is a sense of innocence with the Evening Prayer which is touching; elsewhere though there is a seriousness of purpose that seems at odds with the sparkle of the drama - to my ears, the main pair are applying themselves to a difficult task with all the serious dedication that kids are good at, and therein lies the problem; there's no fun, no sense of wonder that many of the adult singers on other sets manage to evoke. And I'm afraid there really isn't anything good to say about the two children singing The Sandman and Dew Fairy; why anyone would want to listen to them after te Kanawa, Popp, Auger, Hendricks et al on other sets is totally beyond me. To his credit, Wallberg (an excellent conductor, IMO) doesn't make any concessions to them in his pacing of the work, although as early as in the Overture the seemingly close balance of the horns and trombones indicate that maybe he is using a smaller body of strings in his Gürzenich Orchestra of Köln, perhaps in acknowledgement of his smaller than usual voiced soloists. More controversy concerns the casting of a young Edda Moser as the Witch, more Queen of the Night than ancient contralto, but still very characterful - this daring casting did pay off. Likewise, Hermann Prey as the Father, is quite wonderful I thought, the best after Fischer-Dieskau (on Eichhorns' set on RCA). But to summarise my feelings on this set ? I gave it away !
Overall, I think this opera has been very lucky on record, even if none of the very many sets I have heard are absolutely perfect - however, like any of those magical sacks that have fallen off of Santa's Sledge stuffed full of goodies, there really is something for everyone. If it is a feast of fine singing you want, then I would say the Pritchard on Sony with Cotrubas, von Stade, Ludwig, Nimsgern, Söderström and te Kanawa's Sandman sounding as ethereal as one of the angels sent to guard the sleeping the children, just about nudges into top spot for me. For a sizzling sense of fun, then Eichhorn's on RCA is the one for you, with Christa Ludwig bringing the house down, this time as the witch. Want a Witch sung by a tenor though - then Schreier on the Suitner set is your man. Karajan's EMI set contains the best conducting and a magical performance to boot, even if a degree of tolerance is required with it's 1953 mono sound. If you see the work as quasi-Wagnerian, then either Solti and Runnicles should fit the bill, the latter enjoying the finest sonics of all the sets here as well. However, if pushed to recommend one, with modern (if not perfect !) sound, wise conducting and decent singing throughout, I would probably choose Sir Colin Davis's on Philips with the wonderful Dresden Staatskapelle. But if you do insist on children singing the main roles, then I suppose this 1974 EMI Elektrola is about as good as it's going to get. One star each for Prey's superb Father and Moser's interesting witch.